Ukraine's first war rape case is underway — but prosecutions are rare Rape is considered a war crime, but cases that make it to trials or tribunals are remarkably rare because survivors are traumatized and often feel shame and are reluctant to testify.

Ukraine's first war rape case is underway — but prosecutions are rare

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Ukraine is preparing for the first rape case connected to the Russian invasion. Prosecutors say there are many more but acknowledge the challenges ahead. Rape is a war crime, but cases that make it to trials or tribunals are remarkably rare because survivors are traumatized and often feel shame and reluctance to testify. NPR's Deborah Amos begins her report from a refugee center outside of Warsaw.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The air is stuffy here, the cots tightly packed. The posters on the wall urge recent arrivals to tell investigators what they know, but just a few have come forward to talk. More than 4 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the Polish border since the Russian invasion of their country. Only 1,000 have given testimony so far, according to Poland's prosecutor. Not a single rape survivor has come forward. Dr. Rafael Kuslick (ph) has treated some of the Ukrainian survivors in his Warsaw clinic. He says it takes time to heal the body and the mind.

RAFAEL KUSLICK: I'm almost sure even if this war ends tomorrow and all trials will start in a year, I don't think there will be volunteers - I want to talk about it. We will have to wait a long, long time. So history will judge.

AMOS: History has some lessons for Ukraine. In the waning days of World War II, historians say Russian troops, the Red Army, raped more than 2 million German women. Brigitte Meese (ph) kept her wartime memory secret for decades. She's now 92 years old.

BRIGITTE MEESE: I don't believe it myself, but somehow I got here, and I just go on as long as I can.

AMOS: She was 15 in those final chaotic days of the war as Allied armies swept across a defeated Germany.

MEESE: If you ask me where I was when the war stopped, I was there where nobody wanted to be - under the Russians.

AMOS: Why do you think nobody wanted to be?

MEESE: I mean, we had done such absolutely cruel things to the Russians.

AMOS: That cruelty was repaid. She believes mass rapes were revenge taken out on the bodies of German women.

MEESE: Stalin told the Russian army to do what they wanted to the Germans.

AMOS: Did you see them do whatever they wanted to the Germans when the Russians came?

MEESE: Well, of course. I mean, I was also once violated.

AMOS: She didn't talk about her assault at the time. For years, mass rapes were an open secret in Germany, but few reported it. Fewer still wanted to know about it. In Russia, the topic remains toxic to this day, publicly called a Western myth. Meese only published her firsthand account two years ago in a German magazine, My Summer Of 1945.

MEESE: And I just wrote down. You know, the rape was part of it. I wasn't ashamed. It was done to me, luckily, only once, and as it seemed part of the whole story I was telling.

AMOS: The generation who knows the whole story is dwindling.

Were your children shocked to know?

MEESE: My daughter was shocked. And I told her, listen, it didn't really mean very much at the time because it was happening all over the place. But, I mean, she insists that I was traumatized, so that I figured.

AMOS: Here at the Biennale Art Show in Berlin, one exhibit tackles the topic again and asks this question - with all the books, the films, the photos of those post-war years, the mass rapes are hardly mentioned. The exhibit features the text of one postwar diary published in 1959.

(Reading) Friday, April 7 - day of catastrophe. One is jerking her up by the arm, but when she tries to get up, another shoves her back in the chair as if she were a puppet. Then they have me.

The author describes survival strategies when brutality was inevitable in the ruins of Berlin. Nina Menocal, an art gallery owner from Mexico City, dwells on the diary.

NINA MENOCAL: She had to figure out a way to defend herself, to find one major Russian - an important Russian - to keep the other wolves away.

AMOS: Did you know anything about this?

MENOCAL: Yes, I think I did, but not seen it like you see it here day by day.

AMOS: On the day it was published, the German public hated it and attacked the author for besmirching the honor of German women. The diary disappeared from bookstores. It became a bestseller when it was republished in 2003. Attitudes had changed, said German American historian Karen Hagemann, because of the women's movement and the research of feminist historians.

KAREN HAGEMANN: There is no way to deny that these rapes happened. And so historians - different historians really worked on it. It took time to research this.

AMOS: It's widely recognized that rape is a tactic of war. Still, the first prosecutions only came in the 1990s in two tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Now Ukraine is reporting a campaign of sexual violence as part of the Russian invasion. Hagemann says it's another test for making systematic sexual assault part of any war crimes trials.

HAGEMANN: I honestly think that we have to present the whole spectrum of crime. And only if sexual violence is included, we can do justice to the whole population.

AMOS: In Berlin, Brigitte Meese says she never expected justice. And the news from Ukraine has stirred old memories.

MEESE: Well, it makes me sad because it is all over again.

AMOS: What would you say to a Ukrainian woman who has been raped by the Russians? You are now 92, and you've had a life. What would you tell her?

MEESE: I would tell her to forget about it if she can. I think even nowadays, it's something you want to forget.

AMOS: It often takes years for survivors to recount their memories, and some never do. Even as rape is recognized as a tactic of war, it's often called the most hidden crime. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Berlin.


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